Empires have had a remarkable impact on world history over the last five centuries. The six blocks of this module each focus on a particular question, from ‘What are empires?’ to ‘Why do empires end?’ You'll consider the British Empire in detail before drawing comparisons with others, including those of France, the Netherlands, Russia, China and Spain. You’ll study a wide range of primary sources, including letters and diaries, newspapers, political papers, paintings, photographs and newsreel footage.
What you will study
The development of the modern world has been shaped to an astonishing degree by empires. By the 1930s, for example, colonies and ex-colonies covered around 85 per cent of the land surface of the globe. Empires have precipitated some of the most brutal violence ever recorded, and affected the lives of millions across the entire globe for centuries. English became an official language in countries as far apart as Botswana, India and Jamaica, because it was the language of the largest empire the world has ever known, rather than due to any intrinsic communicative merit.
In this module, you’ll undertake comparative study of a range of empires. The history and significance of the British Empire is a thread running throughout the module, but you will also encounter the empires of France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, China and Russia. This comparative perspective will enable you to think analytically about what exactly constitutes an empire, and why they have proved such an enduring way of arranging human affairs.
In addition to this geographically comparative approach, you'll consider the history of empires over a long period of time. This is from Christopher Columbus’ first journey to the Americas in 1492 to the Portuguese withdrawal from its African colonies in the mid-1970s. Although you'll not look at this entire period in the same level of detail, this broad time span enables the consideration of a variety of fascinating issues. These range from the role of germs in the European conquest of South America to the armed struggle by which Algerians won independence during the 1950s.
To enable a valid comparative approach over such a broad geographical and temporal range, the teaching materials are tightly structured around a series of key questions – What are empires? How do empires begin and end? How are empires experienced? How do empires ‘work’? What are their legacies? The module also considers the ‘experience’ of empire and asks: what is was it like living in an empire?
This module places a lot of emphasis on the use of original primary-source materials. You'll be provided with (and guided through) sources as diverse as personal diaries, journals and letters, government papers, newspaper articles, and visual material such as paintings, photographs and newsreel footage. In addition, a module website contains original archive footage of twentieth-century events such as the wars of decolonisation in Algeria, colonial exhibitions in Britain and interviews with those experiencing empire in Africa.
This is an OU level 3 module. OU level 3 modules build on study skills and subject knowledge acquired from previous studies at OU levels 1 and 2. They are intended only for students who have recent experience of higher education in a related subject.
To study this module you require sound skills in analytical thought and essay writing, and the ability to assimilate and critique a diverse range of source materials. These skills are taught in our history modules, such as Early modern Europe: society and culture c.1500–1780 (A223) or The British Isles and the modern world, 1789–1914 (A225). There is no requirement for you to have completed OU level 2 study prior to taking this module, but it’s highly recommended.
If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser.
There is no prescribed preparatory work. However, you might wish to have a look at some of the following readings, such as Ashley Jackson's The British Empire: a very short introduction, John Darwin's After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire since 1405, Shashi Tharoor's An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India, and Priyamvada Gopal’s Insurgent Empire. You'll find helpful advice on study skills in The Arts Good Study Guide (E. Chambers & A. Northedge, The Open University).
You’ll be provided four printed module books and have access to a module website, which includes:
- a week-by-week study planner
- module materials
- audio and video content
- an assessment guide
- access to online tutorials and forums.
You’ll need broadband internet access and a desktop or laptop computer with an up-to-date version of Windows (10 or 11), or macOS (10.15 or higher).
Any additional software will be provided or is generally freely available.
To join in spoken conversations in tutorials, we recommend a wired headset (headphones/earphones with a built-in microphone).
Our module websites comply with web standards, and any modern browser is suitable for most activities.
Our OU Study mobile App will operate on all current, supported versions of Android and iOS. It’s not available on Kindle.
It’s also possible to access some module materials on a mobile phone, tablet device or Chromebook. However, as you may be asked to install additional software or use certain applications, you’ll also require a desktop or laptop as described above.